Poverty Scholar Summer Residencies – Lenora Knowles (2 of 4)

Poverty Initiative Fellows Summer Residencies

Seeking to simultaneously support the work of Poverty Scholar organizations and further develop the leadership skills of Poverty Initiative Fellows, this past summer we launched a program of Fellows Summer Residencies for three of our Fellows.

In a series of blog posts, we will share reflections from each of our Fellows on their residency program experience including: Daniel Jones (an NYU student who spent 8 weeks with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement–MST), Lenora Knowles (who spent 2 months with the United Workers in Baltimore, MD and Jennifer Wilder (who spent 2 months in Central America with the Christian Base Communities, on the Texas/Mexico border, and with the MST in Brazil). We will also post reflections from PI’s Crystal Hall on her work with Poverty Scholars partners in VT and the United Workers in Baltimore.

Lenora completed her first year in the Master of Divinity program at Union Theological Seminary and has participated in the Poverty Initiative Fellows Program since September 2011. During her year with the Poverty Initiative, she took part in the Homeless Union History Study-Work Project, Poverty Scholar organization actions and trainings, Poverty Initiative staff meetings and educationals, and traveled with the Poverty Initiative immersion course in January.  Below are Lenora’s reflections from her residency program in Baltimore.

This summer of I had the powerful opportunity to partake in an exchange with the United Workers Association of Baltimore, Maryland. United Workers is a human rights organization based in Baltimore, Maryland. This community of folks strives to be an organization of poor folks, organizing across color lines (and any other cultural or socioeconomic boundaries for that matter) to end poverty. Baltimore is a deindustrialized urban center. Like many towns and cities across urban and rural regions of the United States, Baltimore has experienced shift away from an economy based on industrial production toward a more service and tourist based economy. This focus in tourism has only exacerbated the already deep seated economic instability and disparities and exploitative social relationships permeating throughout Baltimore neighborhoods.

There are many things that can be said of the current situation of Baltimore along with the history that has birthed such conditions. Despite the complexities and nuances that make up the Baltimore context I think it is helpful to take into account the immense amount of city backed private development and the thriving local Democratic machine currently headed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Over recent years there has been a great deal of private development in the city center and harbor areas in the form business parks, hip living spaces, restaurants, shopping centers, and other tourist attractions of the downtown Baltimore Harbor. Not only are areas like the Inner Harbor public land, but the city has committed millions of dollars (corporate tax right offs and rent relief programs) to big name developers and corporations. The dominant rhetoric justifies such city spending with the logic that more business will mean more jobs for Baltimore. However, as many workers at UW will tell you, these jobs do not make up consistent employment that uphold their human rights. Likewise, in the midst of such corporate favoritism, Baltimore children and communities are battling policy measures that devalue people, like recreation center and firehouse closings.

Not only is United Workers strategizing, organizing, and mobilizing within a city where the local government is unabashedly in good with corporations and developers, but they are also working within a community in which the last six mayors (not including Rawlings-Blake) have been members of the Democratic party. Likewise, Rawlings-Blake is a black woman and the daughter of a member of the Maryland House of Delegates in a majority black city. I say all this because for most, all signs point toward a city government for the interest of those communities in need and perhaps more specifically for the interest of those economically devastated black communities. This may explain the overwhelmingly uncritical allegiance to Rawlings-Blake and the Democratic Party, despite the fact that the last mayor of Baltimore (also a black woman) convictions of fraudulent misappropriation of city funds. I explain all of this not to rant against the Democratic party,  but instead to provide just a mere hint of the complex setting of Baltimore city and the state of Maryland.

United Workers emerged was founded in 2002 by a group of homeless day laborers working at Camden Yards. They were struggling for human rights more specifically work with dignity. After a great deal of strategery and commitment they were able to win a living wage for service workers at the stadium–wages rose from $4.50 in 2003 to an hourly wage of $11.30 After such a concrete win, the organization turned its attention and energy to the Baltimore Inner Harbor. United Workers dubbed this poverty zone to be a “Human Rights Zone” in October of 2008. With this declaration, the United Workers went public with their commitment to the fight for the human right to health care, education, and work with dignity for the low wage workers of Inner Harbor. Since 2008, United Workers has expanded their vision for human rights to include the concept of Fair Development, not only in the Inner Harbor, but in the rest of Baltimore city.  In the February 2011 the United Workers released a report with a summation of the human rights violations taking place in the heart of Baltimore’s so called development success. This vision for Fair Development includes a plan for development that respects human rights, maximizes public benefits for the people of Baltimore, and is sustainable for the public and the earth. The plan for Fair Development expands beyond the geographical limits of the Inner Harbor because the workers of the Inner Harbor are also parents, students, neighbors, artists, people of faith, and community members. After much thought and reflection, United Workers has responded to this reality by taking on a new committee structure led by UW human rights educators throughout the city. These committees meet in church halls, living rooms, offices, and schools.

This summer I spent a great deal of time working on two emerging committees. One committee consists of a group of folks that meet in the living room of a committed UW leader located in a thriving Latin@ neighborhood in East Baltimore. The combination of English class and human rights curriculum was created after a series of community needs assessments were conducted throughout that same area. The Latin@ residents expressed an overwhelming need for English classes in order to be able to survive and thrive within the larger community. With this curriculum, United Workers will to not only attempt to meet the immediate needs of the people (ie English lessons), but also expand participants’ understanding of their own power as families and communities to secure their own human rights to education, housing, health care, work with dignity, etc. Just in my short time in Baltimore this newly formed  committee proved to be a beautiful challenge to develop the language and content of a curriculum that is based in nuanced and general understandings of local, national, and global history, political economy, social movements, and the particularities of the Baltimore Latin@ community. I also had the opportunity to think and work through the possibilities and questions of a human rights curriculum to be implemented within three northeast Baltimore Catholic parishes. Important questions came forth on how to thoughtfully engage faith commitments for justice and the abolition of poverty. More specifically, the question emerged on how we harness those intersections and commonalities as well as explore and challenge those differences among congregants. Although, I am stepping into the second year of the Master of Divinity program here  Union Theological Seminary and second year as a Poverty Initiative Fellow I have been deeply moved to keep the challenges and realities of my United Workers family at the forefront of my scholarship and daily ruminations.


Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary


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